Halloween is full of spooks and cobwebs – it surely wouldn’t be Halloween without them. We like the terror of them, giggle in defence at the fright of them, wallow in the grim reminders of death that sits alongside and laugh out loud at the ludicrous cartoon versions that take us through the annual rituals.
Halloween is, of course, shrouded (as it would be) in the mysteries of ancient myth and magic. Scholars think it goes back to the Celtic ghost-busting festival of Samhain, when bonfires were lit to scare away bad spirits. Perhaps it was to do with the changing of the seasons, the coming of unproductive winter and the sense of the living blending with the dead, the boundaries between the two blurred.
Over the centuries, those amazing arachnids were added to the mix. Spiders have been with us for 100 million years and so – no surprise - are a crucial part of those ancient stories and beliefs, they conjure up fear and fascination, they are always with us in one form or another, sometimes poisonous, sometimes insect-munching benevolence; they are symbols of eternity, creativity, persistence. The stories about them are endless from Greek myths to modern Charlotte’s Web and Spiderman, true (as in Robert the Bruce’s inspiration), sometimes representative (as with Arachne, the mortal who challenged a goddess and was turned into a spider for her trouble); we've even made nursery rhymes about them, like Incey Wincey Spider, to allay our fears.
Spiderwebs are scientific marvels, stronger than tensile steel, sticky for passing insects and silky threads for wrapping, they inspire new inventions such as liquid wire, flexible and stretchable graphene fabrics and much more. But there is a long tradition of using the extraordinary characteristics of cobwebs for human benefit.
Traditional medicine has used a pad of spider silk to treat wounds and staunch bloodflow – modern medicine has discovered that webs are rich in vitamin K, useful in clotting blood. Webs are antiseptic, and anti-fungal, so if the silk is clean, no infection will be caused by it. The ancient Greeks and Romans cleaned soldiers’ battle wounds out with honey and vinegar and the used and placed a pad of spider webs on top and held until the bleeding reduced, then renewed the wad, bandaged it all until the wound healed. Now work is afoot to reproduce the web and silk for use as a modern medical bandage.
All one can conclude is this: that ancient traditions have their uses, scientifically and culturally. We forget them at our peril. And if there were ever a really good reason to celebrate Halloween, spooky spiderwebs and all … well, remembering the past certainly has its worth.